I have been teaching online for several years and one class activity which I have continually struggled with is the way to host a productive asynchronous class discussion. I believe (and have personally experienced terrific synchronous online discussions) but asynchronous online discussions bring more baggage (impediments?) with them. Some of those impediments are shared with any discussion or in fact are minimized online. It is a lot harder to hide the fact you haven’t done your reading or other preparation in online posts, for example. One aspect that I have always liked is that in an asynchronous discussion students generally come to the discussion fresh from the reading and often approach the reading fresh from my prompt or instruction. All too often, my experience in traditional classes has been that reading and discussion are separated in space and time which does not foster successful discussion. All that explanation is to establish that I believe in the possibilities of online discussion, but that it (as so often is the case in teaching) often does not live up to my expectations or hopes.
My first years teaching online I tended to use Blackboard’s discussion board forums to host our discussion, but I always found them problematic (as I have written about in the past, see Google vs. Blackboard) and frequently the medium interfered with the message. As I have also written in the past, this summer and fall I experimented with holding class discussions in Google docs (Teaching with Google Docs). I really like building an artifact together and it seems that many students did as well. However, it was not without problems. First, learning and accessing the new technology was a challenge for many students and I am not sure all of them overcame that initial struggle. Second, especially in my general education writing class, participation was low. I think it was frequently a case of out of sight out of mind as they had to leave Blackboard and log into a new environment.
This led me back to Blackboard this semester — but this time to use the blog feature. I have used blogs in the past to host class discussion but abandoned the practice in the interest of my own sanity. I simply had too many students to manage it gracefully and as I was using Blogger it seemed as if much of my time and energy was focused on teaching the tool (or troubleshooting it) rather than the content and simple record keeping activities were also a huge time suck. But Blackboard’s blog is not a real blog and it is in the expected online environment so teaching the tool is not the same concern that it was with Google Docs and blogger – and the way it is set up makes it very simple to engage in simple record keeping activities.
So far I have been very pleased with the way it is working out. Students were a bit uncertain because most (all?) of them had not used this feature of Blackboard but they quickly caught on and there was very little correction or redirection needed from me. We can easily see the conversational threads as they take shape over the course of the week which is one of my primary complaints with using Blackboard’s discussion board feature.
In addition to my technology change, I also tweaked the actual discussion assignment as well. I actually broke my original assignment into two parts. Students must post an initial blog post in response to my weekly prompt for the reflection assignment and then for the participation assignment they must post comments on other blog posts. I think the two separate assignments has helped students understand and keep track of what they need to do for each week and it seems that I am getting more participation not only in the initial posts but also with the follow-up.
So my question to you, my personal learning network, is how do you run asynchronous online discussions? How do you balance effective discussion and your own time management concerns with your students’ technological abilities? How do you keep the conversation flowing?